I Feel Good: Elevation, Positive Thinking & The Persistence of Racism

Everyone, it seems, likes a story with a happy ending.  It may be a particularly American cultural phenomenon or part of human brain structure.  But the rather relentless focus on cheerful positive thinking is also getting in the way of confronting the persistence of racism in the U.S.

267/365 - keep smilin'

( photo credit: joshfassbind.com)

In the U.S., the prevailing narrative about race is that “racial dynamics have been transformed,” first by the Civil Rights Movement and most recently – and finally – by the election of President Barack Obama.   We see this meme repeated again and again by mainstream news media, in popular movies (e.g., “Blind Side” and the entire genre of “white savior” films), and in personal conversation.   There is something in this narrative that speaks to both a human desire for “elevation” and the American quest to be “positive.”

Roger Ebert, film and social critic, explains that he’s never moved to tears by sad moments in movies, just during “moments about goodness.”   Ebert describes the feeling this way:

“What I experience is the welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift: Yes, there is a good person, doing a good thing. And when the movie is over, I don’t want to talk with anyone. After such movies I notice that many audience members remain in a kind of reverie. Those who break the spell by feeling compelled to say something don’t have an emotional clue.”

This is the feeling that the movie “Blind Side” was supposed to evoke.   Ebert doesn’t mention the Sandra Bullock movie, but touches on race when he goes on to compare that feeling to the way he – and lots of other people – felt in Grant Park the night President Obama was elected.

In an article at Slate.com by Emily Yoffe, “Obama in Your Heart,” she describes a study about “the emotions of uplift” conducted by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, who had studied physical responses in test subjects who are deeply moved — what psychologists call “elevation.” Yoffe writes:

Elevation has always existed but has just moved out of the realm of philosophy and religion and been recognized as a distinct emotional state and a subject for psychological study. Psychology has long focused on what goes wrong, but in the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in “positive psychology”–what makes us feel good and why. University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, writes, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

Some of this research suggests that elevation is triggered by the stimulus of our vagus nerve.  As Yoffe writes again:

“In his forthcoming book Born To Be Good, Keltner writes that he believes when we experience transcendence, it stimulates our vagus nerve, causing ‘a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat’.”

This emerging field of “positive psychology” is proving very popular.  A course in the positive psychology at Harvard is consistently the most popular course on campus, with over 800 students enrolled in it.   Whether or not this is a result of something linked to human biology remains to be determined. Closely tied to the ideas of elevation and positive psychology, is the deeply American notion of “positive thinking.”

In her recent book, Bright-Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, 2009) Barbara Ehrenreich writes that :”Americans are a ‘positive’ people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are oft en baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor.”   The central tenet of this reputation is that positive thinking will make us feel better (physically and emotionally) and this optimism will actually make happy outcomes more likely. In other words, if you expect things to get better, they will.

She goes note that there are some serious downsides to ‘positive thinking,’ including acting as an ideological cover for consumer capitalism and making it impossible to foresee the events of 9/11 (even though there was plenty of evidence of an impending attack).  I’m quoting the following at length because it’s good and she cites a number of sociologists:

While positive thinking has reinforced and found reinforcement in American national pride, it has also entered into a kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism. There is no natural, innate affinity between capitalism and positive thinking. In fact, one of the classics of sociology, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, makes a still impressive case for capitalism’s roots in the grim and punitive outlook of Calvinist Protestantism, which required people to defer gratification and resist all pleasurable temptations in favor of hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

But if early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, “late” capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual’s hunger for more and the firm’s imperative of growth. The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more — cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds — and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. Meanwhile, in a competitive business world, the companies that manufacture these goods and provide the paychecks that purchase them have no alternative but to grow. If you don’t steadily increase market share and profits, you risk being driven out of business or swallowed by a larger enterprise. Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.

In addition, positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a “victim” and a “whiner.”

In her remarkable book, Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst, sociologist Karen Cerulo recounts a number of ways that the habit of positive thinking, or what she calls optimistic bias, undermined preparedness and invited disaster. She quotes Newsweek reporters Michael Hirsch and Michael Isikoff, for example, in their conclusion that “a whole summer of missed clues, taken together, seemed to presage the terrible September of 2001.”7 There had already been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993; there were ample warnings, in the summer of 2001, about a possible attack by airplane, and flight schools reported suspicious students like the one who wanted to learn how to “fl y a plane but didn’t care about landing and takeoff .” The fact that no one — the FBI, the INS, Bush, or Rice — heeded these disturbing cues was later attributed to a “failure of imagination.” But actually there was plenty of imagination at work — imagining an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy — there was simply no ability or inclination to imagine the worst.”

Ehrenreich’s focus in the rest of the book is about her encounters with this relentless drive toward ‘positive thinking’ after her diagnosis with breast cancer (her critique is a devastating one leveled at the “positive thinking” pink ribbon campaigns).

There’s also relevance in Ehrenreich’s critique of positive thinking for understanding the persistence of racism in the U.S. and our collective reluctance to address it.   Many people – mostly white people – think that the best way to solve racism is to ignore it.   Some black folks think that way, too (e.g. Morgan Freeman).    This view exists across party lines and political affiliations, both liberals and conservatives.    And, in a way, it’s a version of the “positive thinking” that Ehrenreich describes: if you expect things to get better, they will.  Now, just apply that to racism.    End of story.  To do otherwise is to be a “victim” and a “whiner.”

I think that’s a mistake.   Where we err is when we think that the best way to deal with racism is to look only at the bright-side, to study only how we’ve overcome, without a simultaneous critique of the persistence of racism and a thorough analysis of how we go about dismantling it.  Racism will not just “go away” because we wish it would.  And, it won’t go away if we keep producing and consuming images that “elevate” us about the subject.

I will feel elevated when there are enough jobs (even for black teens), and everyone is housed (and there are not predatory lending practices), and there are no differences in health outcomes based on race (including an end to diabetes among Native Americans and low birth weight babies among African American mothers), and there are fewer people locked up (and those who are reflect the racial demographics of the entire nation).  Now that would be a happy ending to the story of American racism.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    I liked that post overall, but in the context positive thinking was presented, I think it’s mostly true for those of the higher SES and less so for the lower SES, especially higher SES white communities in the U.S…they have more time for it—that type of cultic happiness that is strived for to alleviate guilt or fill voids and deficiencies folks may feel they have…but the outcomes are never the same as, or compares to, the type of positive thinking(s) that is(are) empowering and leads to other types of genuine perceptions/experiences of happiness for individuals. The former is induced leaving individuals to experience a temporary type of high (which is the result of the chemicals at work in the brain due to some external stimuli that stimulates some sort of short-term appetitive affects, while others stimulate aversive), while the latter is the result of a positive thinking that results in a better general health and wellbeing (counter-framing for example—actively rejecting the negative and replacing with positive).

    Positive thinking can do good and help people through some pretty incredible times (negative thinking won’t get anybody very far…in this sense), but it (positive thinking) can be definitely useless and even dangerous, as with the idea of it applying to colorblindness where delusional conceptions that world is now a free of racism that are constantly reinforced, etc.–a good example is with a religious discussion I was having with a friend on conceptions of afterlives and heaven and hell and how they have been used to oppress and exploit others, both nationally and internationally. Too often folks who believe in those things are living well and privileged lives, yet they tell the suffering “it’s not the quality of life here on earth that matters, no no no, it’s the afterlife that matters” (justifying their own privilege and the suffering of others through their own conceptions of religious virtue, etc. and certainly not willing to trade places)…well, what if there is no afterlife and many people were/are suffering for no reason while the others were/are living happy and healthy lifestyles at their very expense…. Though, sometimes if a person is surrounded by a world of negativity, such as those confronting white supremacy on a daily basis, positive thinking of some sort can make a difference and help provide personal strength to get through life even on a day to day basis. The state of mind and thinking that goes with it is very powerful–survivors of genocide have demonstrated that very well. This is an interesting topic.

    But I wanted to also just sort of share my own thoughts on “The Blind Side” as that is actually a movie I have watched. What I liked about the movie is that I actually did not find it to be all happy fluff fluff stuff as expected–it kind of threw me for a loop in that respect. It addressed issues that are usually invisible to mainstream society, racist dilemmas of if you do then your racist and if you don’t then your racist, the flaws and questionable motives of Bullock’s character, as well as her transformation–which I thought came through well at the luncheon scene with her girlfriends. I also loved the scene of when she was at the governmental office and it showed her looking back at the picture of W hanging on the wall. It evoked lots of different emotions. It’s an extraordinary story. And with at least everyone I’ve talked to about it and who asked me to watch it, they say it’s better they helped than not and agree that while it had that white savior theme (where are the stories of black families taking in whites? etc.) or what have you, ultimately conclude it was a good movie and should have been made–without their intervention and continuous support and help, thanks to their immense white privilege, chances are very unlikely that he would have discovered his own potentials and maximized them and became a pro-football player on his own, or by others around him….

    But also what makes the movie unique I think, was that it was a white family taking in a unknown homeless black juvenile. This is not typical. I can’t say I personally know of one single white well-to-do family that would do that (let alone recognize signs of homelessness and if so, seriously care for more than a few moments or even perhaps even an evening…though clear that her “caring” and motives were shady), etc. But with Bullock’s character, I had wondered if she would have done the same had that student been smaller and skinny, a female, and so forth…and I don’t know if she has since takin in and adopted others since? I don’t think they have…. That’s what I liked most about the movie, was that it left me thinking about the dilemmas rather than with some warm fuzzy feeling inside–it presented several different dimensions to ponder I thought…. Sort of my take on it….

  2. No1KState

    @ Seattle – You probably focused on the dilemmas because they’re what you expected to see. If you had seen the movie cold, without all the advance discussion of the white savior genre, maybe you’d be filled with warm fuzzies.

    I do agree, though, on your analysis of white cultic positive thinking. I think black folks have a version of it, ie “just trust the Lord,” etc. And if you can be happy even when you’re dealing with a bad situation, you’ll get all kinds of “holy” points with church folks. But, I don’t know, sometimes the mainstream “positive thinking” seems kinda empty and corny, silly and immature. Irrational, even. I know it may sound to some that calling mainstream positive thinking irrational is the pot calling the kettle white – but we’re talking about faith in a higher power vs faith in one’s own power, or sometimes just nothing at all.

    But I digress.

    I do find the whole positive thinking, colorblind and mute business whites and some people of color (So that’s why Freeman keeps doing movies with Clint Eastwood!) insulting. After all, positive thinking shouldn’t keep cancer patients from taking chemo (and marijuana where available), right? So why would it keep us from addressing present racial discrimination. Several studies have shown that not talking about race actually makes things worse. Which makes it all the more suspect that whites and their enablers of color don’t wanna talk about it.

    As for the Slate article – here we see the impact of race in education and society: “uplift rhetoric” is almost a requirement for black preachers. If you want to study or experience elevation, just go to any random Black church on Sunday morning. Even some Black methodists can get a little pentecostal. A black student would’ve known that. And also, maybe the study of “elevation” will help whites understand how and why black folks will listen to Rev. Wright preach “God damn American” every Sunday every month for 30 years. What the Rev. Wrights offer is more than elevation, it’s acknowledgement of the problem. We’re not encouraged to ignore racism, but rather told that we (or God) can succeed inspite of racism. It’s the direct opposite of what so many like to call “victimology.” Not that we can’t be successful because of racism and won’t be until it’s defeated, but that society can’t be successful until racism is defeated. More or less, that’s the gist of things at any given Black church on every given Sunday.

    But I digress.

    It’s the height of irony that so many white Americans are now faced with being told that they’re whiners. “How ya like them apples?” It’s sad that they don’t know even who to be angry with, though.

    Btw, Jessie – Great post, obviously! And I think the intro to your book is really good. What you say about homosexuality and race – that someone can skate by on the assumption that they’re straight but only a relative few racial minorities would be able to pass as white – I’ve thought that very same thing a million and one times! But, I’ve never been too sure of how fair that is in light of how damaging it is to live a lie. Still, suffice it to say that if the LGBT community wants support for gay marriage from the black community, getting self-righteous about it as though you can’t pass ain’t helping.

  3. No1KState

    Just remembered – this positive thinking helped lead to the housing market bubble. People assumed that prices from homes would continue to rise. Obviously, very unlikely as to belong on the “ain’t go’n hap’n Cap’t!” (Ain’t going to happen, Captain.)

  4. Seattle in Texas

    And other thoughts on the positive thinking (this is copied from another discussion elsewhere: …the whole prescription drug thing among the white culture–I’ve heard jokes about Prozak being the wonder be happy everything is perfect drug, etc…though have only heard of whites taking it. The pharmaceutical industry has got to make a ton of money off of the whites trying to be positive and find happiness…and then folks like Dr. Phil and whoever. Then the money the religious and other institutions and industries must make. The various fads and scams that come and go. It’s just too much.

    And on Bullock’s movie, it was like white privilege/supremacy at the individual level battling white supremacy at the larger and institutional levels–the different levels clashing and in some ways giving each other tastes of their own medicine. I could go on and on about that movie. That movie will be used as an option for a project in a seminar in racism course in the future for sure. Lots to critically think about there. And I have to wonder about the influence Sandra Bullock had on both softening and enhancing the complexity of it all…she refused that role several times and the producers pushed her and she finally gave in. I can’t help but think of how different the movie would have been and the story would have been interpreted if a different person would have played that role…. Nonetheless, it’s good for mental gymnastics….

    Hi No1KSkate, I apologize for the quick stop by here–I didn’t have time to run through everything and respond at the moment. What I can say quickly is that nobody told me anything about the movie before I saw it–they wouldn’t. They just wanted me to watch first, then talk. But will come back and respond to the rest hopefully in a bit. Thank you

  5. No1KState

    @ Seattle – Okay. My bad. I just assumed that you had read some of the posts here and other places prior to seeing the movie. I mean, I practically knew the entire plot of Avatar just from reading the critiques here and other places! So, my fault. I guess that’s why one shouldn’t make asSumptions. LOL!

    • Seattle in Texas

      Oh no, you’re fine. I think I misunderstood you. I never saw the Avatar movie and the other ones mentioned on here, so I was excited that I saw one I could actually say something about!! After reading it all in full, I do think I was the one who misunderstood–I came here for just a quick second and skimmed and responded to just a short part–so really, I shouldn’t respond until I read the posts in full. I just wanted to quickly acknowledge you while here. But I do thank you for making that suggestion because now I’m wondering myself…I would like to be able to go into a time machine and watch the movie with only the knowledge and understanding of the world I had at that point in time–prior to any sociology courses in particular, and see, then compare the emotional responses from then to now…. 🙂 Thank you

  6. Seattle in Texas

    Okay–I got what you said about the white savior genre–I thought you meant having discussions about what the was movie before I watched the movie. I only saw the preview. But I think you mean different. I don’t really don’t know if I would have left with fluffy warm fuzzy feeling inside after without having read the white savior genre? I want to say maybe about, prior to my upper level undergraduate sociology courses I might have, even if just a little…let’s put it that way…. But then again, I knew there were issues with that stuff growing up the in the liberal world observing the hypocrisy so forth…It’s hard to tell…and I wanted to study the white Jesus of all things…so I really don’t know. But it’s possible….

    I appreciate your other points. I think there’s major differences in Christianity and I don’t think white and black Christian traditions see eye to eye…not to state the obvious, if they did they would take Dr. King, Dr. Wright, and others, very seriously. They would follow what they’re saying and understand the context at the very least. Their (white Christians on the whole) actions would be different leading perhaps an elimination of poverty and we would be much closer to an anti-racist and anti-oppression society. There would be much more appreciation and respect each other regardless of who we are, what our skin color is, what we believe and don’t, what our sexual orientations are, what our political orientations are, etc…. And folks don’t have to share the same exact religious beliefs/orientations to have respect, appreciation, and understanding, for other beliefs and traditions. Dr. King demonstrated that firsthand and led by example. I’m not saying we would have a utopia because there are too many folks who are committed to white supremacy and the riches, wealth and privileges that have been accumulated, etc. I think there will always be greedy, power hungry, manipulative folks. And white Christianities don’t see eye to eye either…. But I think all the religions to do serve to help provide some type of positive thinking, at least subjectively, for all participants, which can be good and bad. And I think the main difference between white and black Christian traditions is one comes out of privilege and the other comes out of oppression…. Well to keep from rambling, you just said all best above. Agreed, agreed, and agreed. And great post/topic, agreed. 🙂

  7. Seattle in Texas

    And I can attest firsthand that the Seattle grunge scene was a direct response and protest to that perfect world delusion the white middle class society was trying to create and all that positive thinking stuff. They were saying, um Roger, we have a serious problem, like many serious problems, and your only making matters worse by trying to hide them, pretending they don’t exist, and being willfully ignorant….

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